THE OPERA CHRONICLE
INTRODUCTION TO THE OPERA CHRONICLE
The Opera Chronicle is an excerpt from my forthcoming
book TRIVIA. As it cross-references with ‘The Representative People and
Soren Kierkegaard’ in an earlier section I include it as an Introduction.
In the first paragraph of The
Magic Lantern Show In Plato’s Cave mention is made of the ‘other Dr Socrates’.
I add below a footnote (‘Pull up your Socrates’*) to elucidate.
The Representative People and Soren Kierkegaard
Stendhal wrote his memoirs (La Vie de Henry Brulard, 1835—36)
for publication forty years after his death (‘The majority’s sensibilities
reflect the vogue’). It ought to have been read in his time. He hadn’t
a good word to say for his contemporaries, except Napoleon and a few of
the women whose identity he changed (save, the diva Madame Pasta whose
name was too good to be true). Soren Kierkegaard’s only political
tract, The Reflective Age, (1846), appeared [in his life] as a pseudonymous
review of an obscure novel by unknown woman as one of several postscripts
buried in a vast tome said to be about Adolph Adler, a forgotten Danish
divine in a sect that no longer exists. The Reflective Age previewed the
next century, though Soren Kierkegaard thought it was his own. He lived
in his head rather than the mid-19th century. He thought that, through
representative impositions from above, popular values, passions and material
gains had become poor reflections for the majority of people, who possess
what they have (or haven’t) by proxy.
Gentle reader, I owe you an example. A micro one all of
my own. Cameras have taken the immediacy out of holidays. The good time
is recorded in order to show after dinner parties. So in a small way you
become a representative person for the guests. They watch you watching
yourself behind a lens. You are able to watch them watching you watching
yourselves. What you both see has been once removed from reality, which
in any case was a mockup. In a reflective age nothing is what it seems.
Self-consciousness controls all the stages from snap to
the showing. Even chance element in photographing has been removed. The
picture is viewed in a monitor and a click determines the reflection of
a something that only happened because you set it up. The present has been
forfeited to gift the guests a present that you presented to yourself.
It was given to you but you
do not want it. You pass it on to those who cannot refuse
it being your guest or pass it on as it has been shop soiled by the showing.
They must allow themselves be entertained by it, faut de mieux.
*Pull Your Socrates Up (from TRIVIA)
Your holiday becomes theirs but it was a non-event.
Extrapolate this example to a macro life as a whole. The
showing is of representative people whose everyday lives are lived in the
opposite to in camera. The entire world is exposed to what public relations
stages into existence, and what cannot be avoided is difficult to resist.
Submitting to its reflected ‘glory’ is the lot of the majority. It become
more than a part of their lives, increasingly substituting their own, until
the elite come to act as their proxies, ‘enjoying’ their lives for them.
Kierkegaard’s idea was taken up by his contemporary, Phineas
T Barnum (Copenhagen and Connecticut share the same longitude
but it must have been telepathy because it is not known that they were
otherwise in touch). Old Brass Mouth of course vulgarised it, going for
representative exceptions like the bearded lady, Cardiff giant, Feejee
mermaid, General Tom Thumb, Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. He could
have included Kierkegaard with his corkscrew walk and air of total self-absorption,
but Soren was not looking to be displayed as entertainment in a circus.
Amusing the corner boys of Copenhagen was enough.
However, Phineas T Barnum got Kierkegaard’s idea upside
down. The Dane saw the ‘freaks’ as the audience and the satisfied customers
the exhibits. But the Barnum and Bailey freak shows were abominated as
no better than public executions by humanists. For instance, when he rolled
out Phineas Gage, the quarry worker who had a three and half foot bolt
stuck in his brain after an explosion and survived with half a face and
his marbles but nobody would employ him (currently back in the neurology
textbooks as an early example of someone whose personality changed after
an accident). Phineas T reversed his ‘you can fool some of the people
all the time, and all of the people some of the time’ to ‘You can’t fool
all the people all the time.’ Say that to Antonio Damasio who required
a braindamaged psychopath from the past to give historical depth to his
notions on the exact location of madness in the cerebral cortex. Gage was
just a man made shy by his appearance who desperate for work could only
get it as a showpiece, until a benevolent farmer facilitated his escape
by giving him a job in his stables. Gage spent the rest of his life with
horses, who didn’t mind how he looked (In French the word ‘gage’ means
‘a forfeit’. He wasn’t taking any chances with the human race. Apart from
his mother he couldn’t trust anybody not to laugh at him. Though he didn’t
mind amusing his sister’s children when they were small).
Kierkegaard speaks to the present age more truly than
Marx or any political philosopher I know. Save, perhaps, Dr Socrates, the
Brazilian football captain, who was, unwittingly or not, a Kierkegaard
disciple, and encouraged his players to live their ideas. The players were
known as the rabugenta because they whined all the time and when things
did not work out consoled each other with passionate abracos on the ground
which made people talk of godknowswhat. At team talks he told them that
‘the mirage of an analogy’ (Proust) would help them escape from the
present. ‘Your future’, he said, ‘is putting your ideas into practice.
And if you don’t think you have any you can borrow mine’.
He would have preferred 'chaque époque rêve
l’autre' to this management-spake but knowing Baudelaire could lose him
his job (the drug Barons were Victor Hugo men) or the down to earth ‘chaque
clou chasse l’autre’ but that would have been the final nail in the coffin.
‘And mine’ he added ‘ is to lead by example’.
Socrates Brasieiro Sampaio de Souza Vieiro de Oliveira
wasn’t just a spoiled doctor and a bit of a Soren. As left back he held
the line together while all around him were playing fast and loose. His
instructions were that the last word be dropped from the ‘I could do that
if’ and to stop watching others (‘watch yourselves’). So he defreaked his
teammates by example and two World Cups got democracy in Brazil off to
a winning start.
THE OPERA CHRONICLE
The first existentialist went to the opera alone most
evenings. He rarely sat through a complete performance, not wanting to
be considered a serious person. As he didn’t take opera seriously, it killed
two birds with the one stone. He usually stayed for an act, randomly chosen,
and played with the idea of putting together the bits and pieces of Cimaroso,
Cherubini, Cavalli, Bellini, and Balfe singing in his head into a patchwork
opera ‘in five and half or almost six acts’.
Opera for Soren Kierkegaard was a table d’hôte.
You nibble an aria, half listening to the recitatives of the audience.
Serio on stage was buffa in the boxes, if it wasn’t the other way round.
Hogarth’s ‘dumb show’ guignoling into early Rossini’s vocal hysteria. Tipsy
basses spit drinking songs. Bosoms wobble on the high notes. Wineglasses
thrown down on the stage bounce. There was one exception, Don Giovanni.
He sat through a performance every year with his eyes closed.
Mozart’s score for him was the banquet, and the libretto
the crumbs under the table. The frippery of costumed staging and plot meant
nothing to him (Beaumarchais might as well have taken the night off and
gone for a good walk). The music was the story that sang to him. Far from
being an accompaniment it was what was happening. He couldn’t disagree
more with Bishop Mynster’s dismissal of musical notation as ‘inarticulate
noises’. Denmark’s worthiest divine was tone deaf except to his own voice.
The notes sounded ‘the innermost essence of sensualness’ with an immediacy
words couldn’t spell out and therefore was beyond reflection. That was
the beauty of it. The music had a reality of it own.
He dined on Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the remotest box
of the house, the curtains drawn. The crooked smoke of a cigar wafted in
the air during the interval, the only sign of life. The melodrama for him
was metaphysical. What he called the three stages of the erotic-yearning,
(Elvira’s daydreaming): seeking, (Zerlina’s flirting): and desiring (the
Don’s insatiable dreich). Hell opening was not damnation for fleshly excesses
but their purification and renewal through fire.
It was a feast that sustained him from one year to the
A Word About Myself
‘A word about myself’, Soren Kiekegaard wrote in his journal.
‘I am at the penultimate phase of the poetic temper on the way to becoming
a sort of reformer in a small way’.
What is a poetic temper ?
Socrates convinced Plato to banish the poets from his
Republic. Their so-called inspiration was merely a mimicking of one another,
just like starlings. The fashion in the reign of Dionysus 2, Plato’s pupil,
was to warble that the wicked are often happy and the good miserable. ‘How
can that be?’ Socrates said. ‘Where is the Good in that?’ Plato agreed.
He had good reason to resent their intrusion into his young tyrant’s education.
Apart from the fact the poets clearly aspired to usurp the philosophers
from the high moral ground in Athens, he was trying to reconcile Dion 2
with the elders but the lad, spellbound by the poets, had decided he was
miserable because he was good and everybody else was happy because they
were wicked, and the city was no longer a safe place to be. So he had to
take himself off to a backwater (where he died suddenly at a wedding, it
As Kierkegaard was often miserable and happy at the same
time (happy with the idea and miserable with having to live with it) he
had mixed feelings about being thrown out. But he was unambiguous with
Socrates’s other argument, the one Plato did not take up. He vibrated with
it. Poets were not to be trusted. Their reality and ideas are at odds with
one another and have to be kept in separate compartments. Therefore their
relation to the ideal is in the imagination only and they live double lives.
Kierkegaard, extrapolating this to his own time, supposed,
that most serious thinkers are ‘deceivers’ in the Socratic sense. Living
your ideas is the proof of them. If you live as you think it should be
the good life. But the crux of the matter is it usually ends up with some
sort of crucifixion at the hands of the Pilates and priests of the age.
And few intellectuals are willing to face that cross when it comes. So
their lives could be regarded as a satire played out between what they
think and what they do. He thought recognising that is the first step towards
having a poetic temper. It may not resolve the contradictions but at least
you begin to analyze yourself and your life.
And who needs to be reformed?
The majority of people live without ideas, other than
what they’re told to think. His would be wasted on them. It is the bishops
that he needs to confront. But their ‘deception’ goes far deeper than Plato’s
poets and the current intellectuals, who only fool themselves. The pastors
are the movers of mountains in Denmark. Simple enough as there are none.
Thus, secure in their power over the people, they can luxuriate in irony
(Primate Mynster forgiving himself on his deathbed for having been ‘an
honoured pagan, and not attaining the highest’, aware his accumulation
of wealth both impressed and confused his Faithful. So that’s all right
then. And he was treated to a saint’s funeral).
Reform the Reform Church? Kierkegaard was doubtful. ‘Christianity
is as good as dead, and to close the way to further deception first a poet’s
heart must break or a poet be torn in two’. It was only in his last years
he put on the motley mantle publicly and made himself a martyr (in a small
The Magic Lantern Show In Plato’s Cave
Kierkegaard hesitated to call himself a poet for fear
of being deported from Plato’s Republic. Not because he believed ‘the idea’
of a thing is the unchangeable reality behind the ‘unreliable’ concepts
produced by the imagination’ (surely Socrates put it better. Writing it
down makes you begin to imagine what you heard and you it doesn’t sound
right. So you rejig it until has the ring of truth and that is always dull.
Even if you had a tape recording you’d feel compelled to douse it down.
You’re going for general agreement, the lowest common denominator. The
other Socrates, for instance, might have said, ‘we blew it because the
players didn’t follow the game plan. They had other ideas. France stuck
to theirs’. God knows what Plato would have made of that. It is the intention
that matters, not the result. Football is only a game like philosophy.
But he would have said it in three volumes. So only the commentators would
have read it and their word has to be taken on faith. The original Socrates’
theory of ‘ideas’ précised above is of course abstracted from secondary
sources filtered through several languages, some of them dead, and made
to fit a single sentence. This is an example of what Kierkegaard was up
against. All ‘so’s and ‘but’s, if you’re asking me). No, it wasn’t why
he wanted to stay in the Republic. If anything it would have made him glad
to be kicked out. The confusion of the senses seemed a more likely constant
to him. Reality is the variable. Everyone has their own. It is ‘the’ idea
we must learn to live. He said that so often in his life that nobody believed
that he could be attempting to do so himself. Which suited him because
outside interference would not have helped. He was failing only to himself
and his writings, which were created in what he called ‘a secret gloss’).
I digress. No, he wanted to remain within the walls of
the imaginary Republic in order to observe the philosophers chained to
one another in the cave. Or at least their shadows thrown on the wall by
the fire which blazed so merrily the wise men could not be seen. He wanted
to watch the magic lantern show. There he could see the prancing spectres
as foolish phantoms reflecting their more substantial owners. Cumbersome
monsters with small chance of surviving the arrival of the meteorite of
new ideas. They represented the life and work of a race of redundant thinkers
who, despite not being able to turn their heads, felt at home in familiar
surroundings, protected by what they knew, dead ideas. There was comfort
in numbers and playing hierarchical games, conferring honours amongst themselves,
the pecking order for the graveyard that to them was the future. The shadows
were dying into one another, in effect.
But the more at home they feel the greater their foreboding.
Looking towards the fire blinds them and they cannot see the light. A confusion
of the senses distracts them from concentrating. The dancing shadows begin
to have a life of their own and it isn’t one the philosophers would want
to live. The pain in their eyes makes them moan (everything being spoiled),
and, of course, believing the worst makes it happen.
Paralyzed by vague fears, alien ideas threaten their comfortable
reality. They do not understand from where and for what these interlopers
in the cave have come. The slow decline into the philosopher’s pantheon
falters into a quiet despair. Holes appear on the roof of the cave, imaginary
ones. They are in a madhouse.
Kierkegaard’s ideas on dread anticipated Freud by fifty
years. Go into a cloister with yourself and die with the shadows. You are
living the nightmare of your own dead end. The only way out is not to submit
to the consolations of the cave, all shadow and no substance, and dig deep
Word Games and Big Ideas
Language, the official currency of the philosopher’s cave,
for Kierkegaard was behind the fugue. Words through reflection invoke dread
(anything you say is taken down in evidence). Immediacy (‘the innermost
essence of sensualness’) is put on hold. Living reality has to get on without
you. Awe or terror most often induces silence. It is a defense mechanism
that serves a dual purpose. The commonplace that silence produces reflection
is a fallacy. Silence empties the mind until you’re still as a mongoose
before a snake. You absorb your fear through mimicry to transfix its cause.
Secondly, your silence is the bottom line of indirect communication. It
is as the white stick to the blind, signaling your condition, your dilemma,
to attract consideration and even help across the road.
Kierkegaard conjectured that if music or painting were
the lingua franca in the cave dread could be avoided. The non-verbal arts
are all about performance. Their expression is acted out tout a coupe.
For example, Bach’s ‘St. Mathew Passion’ or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel
overwhelms with their immediacy and the aftershock is catharsis or cosmic
relief. I’m not so sure.
It’s true for ancient Greek music with its katastrophes
that shatter the lyre strings into a silence. Once you regain your hearing
you can live again. Death and disaster have been put in their place. It’s
also true with cave paintings. Hunters, unable to go out in a storm, smear
fresh mud on walls that echo the thunder. They airbrush on crushed flowers
mixed with chalk and their own blood and voila, there’s bison for tea.
But with Christian art and music reflection became integral to appreciation.
Congregations joined the artist before his work and became a part of it.
The faithful gave way to the secular spectators. The patron’s court stood
before the work thinking about something else. Modernism brought the expert
as audience and reflection increased accordingly. It was more focused too.
So the artist responded to it in his work. Not only anticipating to surprise
the knowing. They reflected one another. The art of being an audience came
into being. Immediacy in music and painting is even more remote than in
literature, which is still a fairly solitary preoccupation for both the
writer and reader (despite the gathering owls of Minervian publicity).
Certainly, I think, Picasso and Schoenberg might have changed Kierkegaard’s
mind. Curiously, what he said about the procrastinative powers of language
has recently been used to positive effect. It is the basis of cogitative
therapy. You can talk yourself out of acting on negative feelings, and
madness is postponed. I think he would have been pleased though it goes
against the grain of his critique. He was no stranger to the seventh virtue.
Kierkegaard did not consider language as in some sort
of teleological crisis. It was how it is. He made a virtue of necessity.
‘As the genteel poor live on their investments, the poet must make do with
words’. Beckett’s ‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’ could
have been his motto. He threw himself behind words. After all, their delayed
reaction to the immediate is relative. Between near spontaneity of the
running commentary and the temporizing of Cicero’s writing left to mature
for ten years there is only a difference in kind. And these extremes can
be trumped by anticipation, finding a blueprint for the future from past
patterns and hazarding an educated guess. His Present Age (1846) is a good
example. He thought he was writing about the mid-19th century but it’s
what’s happening now.
Like Socrates, Kierkegaard questioned everything, not
for answers but to lay the ground for compromise. He didn’t spare immediacy
itself. Aristotle’s to ti in einai (the-what-is-to-be) had made him thoughtful.
Is Plato’s predecessor anticipating the immediate and, if so, is that jumping
the gun? Did the immediate exist for him as an idea rather than an experience?
Did it have an existence for him in reality? So many queries he wondered
if he was on the wrong track. But first he needed to tackle his own definition
of the immediate, ‘the innermost essence of sensualness’. (It’s
Greek to him where that came from. You read everything at hand and draw
your own conclusions from what is missing.
The intellectual life is a plugging up of holes).
Essential Questions and Lost Papers
Does the sensual have a centre and where is its circumference?
And which sense are we talking about? And what is essence made of?
According to Aristotle it’s a substance (Ousia) . Thought essence and substance
are synonymous in his later work. Surely not a slip of the quill. Was he
practising the seventh virtue with an elegant elision to prevent people
getting the idea that essence is a material substance? It being metaphysical
in the sense that one speaks of ‘the substance (or essence) of an
idea’. If Aristotle was being inconsistent (he had a busy mind. Though
that is no excuse). Perhaps it was due to a failure to bring existence
into the discussion and make the distinction, if any, between it and essence
(or substance. Possibly the same thing). So many senses to consider that
Kierkegaard is almost out of his. But not yet. Though his mind is beginning
to Spinoza out of control and he’s like to give up the ghost and let God
to do his thinking for him, his whole being says lighten up. The problem
philosophers share with comedians and ballerinas is they tend to get heavy
and their lives degenerate into booze, bulimia and religious cults. But
the poor old Dutch spectacle-maker brought tears to his eyes. Baruch Despinoza
(to give him his full name) thought he saw the light but the lens distorted
it and he submitted his intellect to Jehovah and his lungs to glass dust.
When he died and went to heaven did God need to ask him what did you do
(Another lens man, Leeuwenhoek, a sweatshop owner in Delft,
a couple of centuries earlier, louped the loop, looking into the dishing
water. He saw little wriggling creatures ‘a thousand times smaller than
the eye of a bug’. Thus the origin for the popular misnomer for bacteria?
Knowledge of disease is a chain of chinese whispers (it suits the medical
complex to promote ignorance. ‘But words mean bugger all when it comes
to the crunch’, says Justin Langer, Australian all-rounder. He prefers
to speak with bat and ball).
So with a heavy heart Kierkegaard got back to more questions.
Is essence a substance unique to the individual or common to many (universal)?
Is the immediate an accident or a logical consequence of a rational schema?
So many questions not raised, let alone addressed. Can Aristotle be blamed?
Maybe some papers were lost fleeing Athens when Alexander died and he no
longer had protection from other philosophers. Aristotle surely would have
taken up the question of the immediate’s reality, its actual existence,
in his treatise on Poetics, to clear his mind and ours. It is possible
Aristotle’s arguments were simply lost to him in translation. Kierkegaard
studied the Greek in German and that’s akin to reading Marx in Russian.
(Comparative language makes for misunderstandings not only in the babble
of spontaneous translation and the Babel tower that readers must learn
to swallow. Politics has its interests too).
So much is lost to us, that’s if it ever existed!
Kierkegaard was left with a sense of the immediate’s essential indeterminacy.
Its breathless pre-reasonableness could be experienced but not fully explained.
'Instant synthesis without a dialectic' (Hegel) would always raise philosophic
doubts (‘did that happen? And what was I thinking?’) And be subject to
revisionism. And yet immediacy seems quite obvious to an amateur thinker
like me. Getting to the truth through sensation, sensing the truth. But
Kierkegaard knew that, if the nature of complexity is to be deceptive,
the simple is either roughly true or a damn lie. The lightning flash of
the immediate was as simple as love at first sight, and a coup de foudre,
it is invariably followed by complicating rumbles. Kierkegaard had experienced
this himself and simplified the complexities, anticipating the worst by
breaking off his engagement with Regine before the immediacy of the erotic
Philosophy having failed him Kierkegaard fell back on
the sensual potential of language to close the gap between reflection and
immediacy. But catching the ‘here and now’ in a frieze of words (the pun
— frieze/freeze — would have pleased him, I think) brought its own uncertainties.
Kierkegaard knew language’s conventional conformity to grammatical logic,
the rounding off of sentences, risked deception more than instinct, a rope
with less knots. Instinct was a lasso to language’s noose in relation to
the immediate. But a noose can be used as a lasso in the right hands (a
sailor’s rather than a cowboy’s) and an idea left hanging in the air can
still be grasped. One says, ‘I don’t understand why this is so or
that is done. I play it by ear’. The inexplicable is caught musically.
Another says, ‘That’s how I see it’. The visual can catch it too. Language
is not limited to the rational. It can field the immediate through the
musical—of rhetoric and eloquence (‘the painting of ideas’, Pascal) — and
the visual — images and the sculptural correspondence of an analogy.
But Kierkegaard’s ‘fail better’ side was not carried away
on wings of poesy. All around him poetry was prancing to the romantics
riding on the back of the gothic. This did not interest him. Where were
the ideas? Where was the head rising above the parapet? He might have taken
the route of a Pope as Byron eventually did. He chose instead to ride the
wild horse that was galloping in his brain. He was his mind’s barebacked
jockey (‘short forelegs, tremendous hinds. Mostly I sit still but when
I stir the great leap that follows strikes terror in all’). It was an intellectual
rather than a spiritual autobiography, rooted in the body rather than what
passed for the soul. He saw his as a sort of Spruce Goose, the first jumbo
jet that never quite took off and drove Howard Hughes mad. ‘Too heavy to
sustain a thought. No wing beat lifting it into the ether. If it moves
it bumps along the ground and rises at most below the clouds like a flock
of geese when a thunderstorm is approaching, doing the foolish thing out
of anxiety’. The intellectual autobiography for him does not draw ideas
from his life but applies them to it and tells what happened. He wrote
it in informal prose rather than formal poetry, in order to rein in the
only means at his disposal, language, whose untameability he well knew.
Kierkegaard knew that purists are always in danger of
ignoring the reality of the material world and disappearing up their own
air. Impatient with the prolixity of Schelling’s lectures in Berlin (1843),
his ear cocked up whenever he heard the word ‘reality’ but it never was
more than another abstraction, lacking immediacy. (‘L’abstrait qui tient
ses concrets d’une langue morte’, said Francis Ponge, who say the beauty
of birds flapping around as that of coquettes in the Bois de Bologne, fine
feathers but none too hygienique underneath. ‘Tres, Grand Siecle’. He was
spot on about mimosa whose powder puffs open to lose their scent and it’s
all downhill tragic decadence after that. Just like the birds of paradise
of the Bois de Bologne soon enough became les poules in the banlieus of
Paris. But all have their moment). Language had to be grounded in the real
in order to soar. His had the confidence of poetry to release words that
would obey his call as long as he did not subject them to prosodic restrictions.
As the musician accepts the limitations of his instrument to make it sing,
or the sculptor divines what his stone can take. He could echo the immediate
as long as he didn’t force out sounds or images that they hadn’t in them
or try to work against their geological grain.
So Kierkegaard was emboldened in his first serious work,
Either/Or, (1843) to leap and bound around with his verbal net, attempting
through an analogically structured amalgam of epigrams, storytelling, confessional
diaries, letters and general play, everything except verse, to capture
the immediate, at least the idea of it, and in doing so brought poetry
into modern philosophy. If, as he ought, Plato invited him back into his
Republic I am not sure Kierkegaard would want to come. Watching the shadows
dancing on the wall of a cramped overheated cave inhabited by frightened
philosophers would be paint drying in comparison with the voyant, buoyant
intellectual and emotional exhibition he was making of himself and the
voices in his head for our enlightenment in his growing body of work.
He had long turned his back on the scholastics and logical
positivists of his day to launch ideas that were slightly off centre but
were immediately recognisable as nearly true by the few willing to suspend
preconceptions. In other words, by very few.
On Cultivating Deaf Ears
His Either/Or was proof to him that a work can be written
in a provincial literarchy without the clawing embraces of mutual admiration
or the incitements of comforting expectations. You can work against the
current. He decided to make everything difficult. He recognised the irony
with amusement that this would make him useful to the ‘ready reckoners’
(banalising commentators. They boil things down for everybody understands
a burnt pan) because his work made it easier for them. It meant sinking
money into getting published. But he didn’t complain. Putting his father’s
ill-gotten gains into higher things was another irony he could appreciate.
Nobody could expect to make money on works that brought complexity to a
But he still thought he was owed something by the ‘ready
reckoners’ who could summarise him for general consumption (if only to
mock). His difficulty was not beyond understanding as he always put a few
crystal clear sentences to caption the main meaning. He didn’t want to
be completely out of the game, ignored. The competition helped him. His
opus was the neatest of couplets compared to the garrulousness of the prevailing
philosophers. One page of his said more than a hundred of P. K.Hansen or
the like. At least his ‘impossible ideas’ were expressed entertainingly.
His work offered to the ‘ready reckoners’ is scorn suffficient
to amuse the public and at the same time discouraging them from reading
him. His witty absurdities were set in sea of learning and relentless self-consciousness
that was not in itself risible but needed a middle man to bring out in
the open. Kierkegaard allowed his commentators status as interpreters and
this gave them the power to discourage readers thinking they could write
their own book. Do-it-yourselves would be disastrous for the ‘ready reckoners’
is sales and put them out of work. Therefore he felt he was owed a percentage
of their profits. An unlikely prospect. But creating a divide between authors
and the general public that could only be closed by a relaxed reading,
at least of his middle men, made Kierkegaard feel his own concerns about
representative proxys were being honoured in practice.
In his head he had higher ambitions than competing with
the ‘ready reckoners’ or the fashionable (if unreadable) philosophers,
mostly divines whose discourse nodded with the status quo and dies with
them (and indeed it). He measured himself against Godknowswhat. Castles
in the air, the music of the spheres. Unfinished cathedrals and symphonies!
Why not have delusions of grandeur in full knowledge that Copenhagen at
best would think you insane? And you were sure that you had so successful
jettisoning serious consideration from the intellectual elite that it didn’t
matter, at least for the present. Who was he writing for then? People who
did not read him properly but who nevertheless could form very definite
opinions on him and his books? They could not possess him, but he could
possess a small corner of their lives.
He wasn’t like Thucydides who thought he was writing history
but was really talking to his contemporaries in Athens. So, say, his reasons
given for the Peloponnesian War make no sense to historians because they
jump beyond what every Athenian schoolboy knew at the time to enlarge the
picture, emphasizing the complexities that always exist, for a people feeling
guilty at crushing poor little Megara like a wasp out of trader’s pique
and annoying the Spartans, and already sufficiently punished by Apollo
with a devastating plague, in order to make them get a move on and finish
the thirty-year war.
Neither was Kierkegaard as self-contained as Stendhal
with his non-fiction, which, although it was a searing critique of his
contemporaries, he saw being read by their grandchildren, and he wondered
aloud, and not without pleasure, what they would make of it in thirty years
time. Kierkegaard wrote to inform the unreformable, who thought so highly
of themselves that a gadfly like him couldn’t reach their tender parts.
He was content to be an ineffectual irritant on the gratin of Copenhagen
as it confirmed his view of human nature as complacently thick skinned
beyond hope, and because he had to put it down on paper, if only for himself.
It was only sixty years after his death that his writings were returned
from this no-man’s land to the world.
Karl Jaspers, a German soldier in the First World War,
on reading 12-volume translation of Kierkegaard in the trenches, coined
the phrase ‘Existenz-philosophie’. He saw in the Dane’s aleatory thinking,
with its ‘leaps of faith’ and bounds towards the immediate, a Dionysian
dance of the mind, which had the randomness of poetry rather than war as
it was formulated by the constant heartbeat of an all too human self, a
social reformer (‘in a small way’) with a poetic temper. It would open
up philosophy to the modern world as psychology was by the more Apollonian
Freud, whose preoccupation with dread was pre-empted by Kierkegaard, most
explicitly in his Fear and Trembling (1843).
The art in Kierkegaard distracted Jaspers from the killing
fields. Here was a virtually unknown master, who wrote out of his skin,
superseding dogged reasonings with ideas played by ear and sight-read.
It was both personal and universal like all great literature. Still for
all its éclat it was as somber in its intentions as Socrates’, seeking
to make difficulties clear, not to solve them, but for the mind to entertain.
Jaspers as a German Idealist brought down to earth by the war and Soren
Kierkegaard knew his discovery would not go down well in the land of Goethe
(‘nothing but a talented defender of solecism’), Hegel (‘wrote his whole
logic and then in the preface said it was an experiment in thought’) and
Schiller (mocked in ‘The Diary of the Seducer’. His ‘Thekla’ songs were
used to gull a romantically inclined girl call Cordelia. And it was the
beautiful bookbinding that did the trick). Jaspers took himself and Kierkegaard
to Paris and the intellectual renaissance that France lent the world in
the first half of the 21st century might be said to have begun.
Jaspers and Paris were not deceived by the decoy Kierkegaard
mischievously left with his papers when he died at forty-two (having drunk
the last bottle of wine in his cellar and smoked the last cigar). “ All
my work is about the possibility of becoming a Christian”. He meant the
impossibility with the world as it is. His last years dedicated to dismantling
the Danish Reform Church’s pretensions was a one-sided polemic. The vestments
were beyond ruffling. His exasperated rasp, ‘It’s high time religion is
taken away from mankind in order to teach us how to appreciate it’ reverberates
in echoes to this day.
After Kierkegaard’s death his brother, a respected cleric
who Soren didn’t want at his funeral, surprised himself and annoyed his
bishops, by publishing the writings in their entirety. They were ignored,
except by dissident divines all over Europe. Having read him, they either
lost their religion or became fanatical Kierkeguardians, borrowing excerpts
for their own narrow purposes and translating it themselves. Indeed, blotched
renderings, banalising his poetry and wit with scholastic prose almost
killed his reputation. It was fortunate that Jaspers could read between
the lines and embarked on his trenchant study of the complete works. He
went beyond Christian apologetics and found in Kierkegaard two dominant
motifs. The difficulty of living an idea, and achieving love for others
in a world that is a hall of mirrors reflecting fresh distortions (self-love
is as far as most people get).
Life at the Opera
Kierkegaard’s writings were the outward expression of
his life. No major thinker in history is better known. Mozart’s Don Giovanni
took central stage. It affirmed his melancholy, passive impotence.
The melancholy was reflective of himself only, and so it couldn’t be said
to be party to what he considered the mortal sin of the modern man (irony,
the venal one, he largely left behind with maturity). The passivity was
more apparent than real when you consider what went on in his mind. But
he was physically inearth and socially indifferent. I don’t know about
the impotence, other than its obvious relation to melancholy and passivity.
Don Octavio’s ‘Il mio tesoro’ was a wave to his
fiancée, a passive one. The wispy bel canto neutered the manly promise
to avenge Donna Anna’s violation (Beaumarchais). Octavio’s tender melancholy
echoed his, offering Regine consolation for her lucky escape. But Kierkegaard
never stopped thinking about her. She was his original yearner, who never
reached the desiring stage. It was he who did the seeking. But when they
reached the third stage of the immediate erotic he let her go, but not
in his writing. Regine came to embody the idea of the other. It was a conceptual
violation, in a way.
Thinking about her made him feel bad at leading her up
the garden path, but he was living an idea and felt unable to do anything
about it, except to make a show of indifference when they met so
that she wouldn’t come running back. Still he was haunted, by Don Octavio’s
‘io vo’ con lei’. He too craved to follow his Donna Anna through life,
sharing her sorrow. Together they could live with it. Instead he encouraged
a suitor to marry her and got on with his work.
Kierkegaard’s understanding of the Don was founded on
a parable he told himself.
There once was a primordial paradise where the sensual
had its home. It was to be found in a mountain, not on the map, called
Venus, where wild pleasures could be anticipated in their natural state.
Dance rather than language was its music. There was no place for spoil-sport
reflection. You didn’t think twice before you leaped. Out of this world
Don Giovanni was born.
Venus’s fall came with Christianity when the flesh lost
its independence. Mind over body made absolutes relative. So began the
descent into the three stages and hell opening.
Stage 1: Yearning. Desire without object. Dreams, sentimental.
But there is dread in them. You sleep in the Dark Ages. Nothing can shake
you to wake to do anything about it. Desiring is two stages away. The ‘immediate
erotic’ not even on the horizon. In Kierkegaard’s day-dream you mooch behind
‘The March of the Leprechauns’ (Brothers Grimm had not yet stolen the march
for his pied piper). The piper bewitched children into following him and
turned them into changelings. Surely he had adults in mind? But being a
bit of a changeling himself, he would have been drawn to the Irish legend.
His father wasn’t sure who his mother was. Or if he did he wasn’t telling.
The maidservant stood in for his wife, the vessel of virtue who died before
Soren was born. (Perhaps it was knowing he was an after-thought that made
it impossible for Kierkegaard to be become a ‘pure’ philosopher?)
Stage 2: Seeking. Desire begins to focus but the object
is too generalised to be possessed (‘desire has its absolute in the particular,
desiring the particular absolutely’). Don Giovanni enters the picture but
only in the wings. The steps quicken but not sufficiently to dance. Walks
with gentleman callers are chaperoned. It’s a medieval romance. Courtship
Kierkegaard’s courtship of Regine never got past this
stage. He identified with the Don, but didn’t allow it to get out of hand
when his intended sought for more than an arm. Self-conscious reflectiveness
came between them. He had an idea and wanted to live it. Although he wrote
continuously about their relationship he never compromised Regine by revealing
the details of this crucial stage. It was not just chivalry. His diary
(1842) reveals everything and nothing.’After my death, no one will find
amongst my paper a single explanation as to what really happened (this
is my consolation). No one will find the words which explain everything,
and which often made what the world would call a bagatelle into an event
of tremendous importance to me, and what I look on as something insignificant
when I take away the secret gloss which explains all’.
Stage 3. Desiring. Pre- and post- Christian in its
freedom. Don Giovanni is its prime exemplar, a force of nature. He takes
his bow and leads the dance. Dance is his territory, his sphere of action.
Like the birds and the bees. It is not merely an accompaniment to his designs,
his figures of eight. The music that makes others want to join the dance
is the Don.
His arrival in the world was anticipated by Mozart
in earlier operas. The dreaming Page in, Papageno on the chase in The Magic
Flute. Their synthesis is Don Giovanni, the personification of desiring,
who induces others into his, not unwillingly. Call it seducing and you
underestimate the two-way in the Don’s dance. The desire was always there,
waiting to be awakened. Dual possession though is problematic, particularly
in the Christian world where the individual is the community and the Don
is out of his natural element.
In Mount Venus the erotic was unambiguously immediate
and universal. Here it is not only complicated by property rights and ethics.
Possession is personal. Through it you become an individual and see your
reflection in the other who sees her/himself in you. The two-way mirror
distorts your self-image. You wish to be seen in the eyes of others as
they would like. And vice versa. Nobody is himself or herself. So the dance
loses its beat and step and staggers to its conclusion, desaxe with recriminations.
Kierkegaard said, ‘to wish rightly is a great art,
or rather a gift’. The Don, as a sensual genius, has it. But being no longer
in Mount Venus he has to take another into account.
He is aware of himself with horror becoming reflective.
Reciprocation in the erotic is no longer immediate. It is like what a god
must feel when Jupiter renders him mortal. The stoop to human folly has
only one art to hide its shame is to die. So when hell opens the Don goes
willingly into it, wills it, even, desiring to return to your former state.
The discrepancy between Mozart’s music and Beaumarchais
libretto made Kierkegaard attend Don Giovanni with his eyes closed.
Afterlife at Another Opera
If Kierkegaard had lived to a reasonable age for his social
class at the time he would have heard Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. I wonder
what he would have made of it? It’s the only other opera I could sit through
and not feel silly. Pushkin’s book is submerged by Tchaikovsky’s Mozartian
groundswell, and just as well as it owes less to Wolfgang Amadeus than
to Byron’s Don Juan (which Kierkegaard read in German before he grew up).
Strange to think Byron (gothic romantic) and Kierkegaard (post-modern)
being contemporaries. Less so Pushkin, a tabula rasa for the eternal feast.
In the first quarter of the 19th century they walked the same earth. But
what they had in common — other than gammy legs (clubfoot, corkscrew ankle
and dancer’s knee, respectively) and dying of premature old age (36, 42,
38) — is what has survived into the 21st century. Brilliance as chroniclers
(journalists in the original sense), poets whose heads lead their hearts
and, above all, their preoccupation with the art of seduction.
Kierkegaard , its theologian and Byron, its champion sportsman
(Pushkin, his after-ran) clash in the final section of Kierkegaard’s ‘Either/Or.
‘The Diary of A Seducer’ is a hymn to Mozart, with a haw to Byron: give
Don Juan a mother and a childhood and you make him a reflective personality,
an individual who conforms to social expectations. The embodiment of irresistible
desire has his power reduced to a nice class of chap making himself interesting
to get you into bed. Seduction’s small talk ends with post-coital
cigarette rather than hell’s flames.
Mozart, on the other hand, brings to life the personification
of pure passion with a gift for inducing desire in others who finds when
it is consummated that he is a bee that that has released its sting he
must die for it. But it’s not damnation. He walks into the flames to return
to Mount Venus so his phoenix can rise again, and regenerate the trepidation
he brings to all respectable women. Their prelude to joy.
Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin’s stages of the immediate
erotic are closer to Kierkegaard’s experience in life than Mozart’s Don
Giovanni (though, through Pushkin, a librettist less easy to disappear
than Beaumarchais, an impure element of Byron’s comes through. But he can’t
be blamed for this. Tchaikovsky more or less rewrote him).
The girl offers herself, you refuse her and regret it
when you see the woman she has become and hell opens, which for Tchaikovsky,
mediated through Pushkin’s Byronism, is a perpetual state of boredom rather
than fire. Pushkin saw hell as killing time in a London club (though he
had never been a member of one, let alone to England, except in the imagination).
Tchaikovshy’s boredom in Onegin was more natural. His
music expresses it as an alluring sea that he couldn’t swim across (romantics
all have their Hellespont). Tchaikovsky’s life was spent paddling in its
shallows, regretting he could never satisfy a Tatiana. He drowns
himself and us in waves of taedium vitae. It lingers as we return to life.
Kierkegaard was a ‘joyous but jealous ladies’ man.’ Though
his mind was not in harmony with his heart. Mozart’s mind was so full of
harmony that his heart could only follow it like a lamb to the slaughter.
He was another ladies’ man, like Pushkin, who put the ‘jealous’ before
the ‘joyous’. Both had flighty wives who lead them a merry dance.
Mozart didn’t know what to do with his jealousy so he
glorified his imaginary rivals (Constanze was indeed constant) into an
irresistible force of sensual genius in Don Giovanni (Kierkegaard’s glorification
of the great seducer was less generous. I think he saw the Don as a deadly
warning against doing what you wanted to. But since this was on reflection,
it embarrassed him into making him a stand in for himself in the living
of an idea. He had reason to be jealous of him. But this did not show).
Mozart’s exultation before death went into his ‘Requiem’, and Pushkin’s
into a hopeless duel with Natty’s Guardsman lover.
Tchaikovsky in his life had neither joy nor jealousy,
I think. He was a miserable, repressed homosexual, whose heart was out
of harmony with his mind, but it could soar where the mind couldn’t. The
climaxes of Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni reflect the difference. Beaumarchais’s
(not Mozart’s) denouement is the 19th century version of a shoot out, an
ending that always makes me laugh, (particularly when the Stone Statue
beckoning the Don into hell looks like a points policeman on stilts and
the flames are evidently a reflection of fire rather than the real thing).
Laughter is hollow. Whereas Tchaikovsky with music drenched with world-weariness,
and a libretto to match, empties you too but differently. When you step
out into the night you are glad to be able to breathe again. You fill your
lungs. It’s wonderful to be alive. Where will I go now, you say? Not a
London club. You want to live.
Return to Life
Would Onegin have made Kierkegaard feel like living? I
suspect the irony of being regenerated by being drained rather than fire
would have made him send his manservant, Anders, out on the town to have
a wild time on his behalf and take notes when he comes back. The last time
he had let himself go was when as a student friends hoisted him onto a
whore but he was too drunk to know whether he was still a virgin. He needed
the eternal seducer rather than a temporal one like his holy merchant father
who married the maidservant and after Soren was born became his own Stone
Statue, condemning his own children to the flames. They would have to suffer
by dying before him so he could be purified for his sins (not merely begetting
Soren. He made a pact with the devil that made him rich on War bonds).
Soren defied his father by outliving him. He certainly
didn’t want his ghost to return. In his writings about Don Giovanni the
Stone Statue is only mentioned in passing and with scorn for Beaumarchais.
The idea of raising him to personify a universal idea (the Stone Statue
as an avenger of seducers, for example) would never have entered his mind.
The only pedestal he would put his father on was one that could be pulled
down. Only once did he use his father to play in an idea he was living.
He darkly hinted to Regine when he was trying to frighten her off that
his blood was tainted. She would probably have known from the servants
at home that Soren’s father had before he saw the light been a bit of a
His emptiness after the Tchaikovsky would have not have
been filled with a desire to live. It would have too late for that. Not
to have the idea, but to live it. I think he might have returned to his
house and built a wall of books around his insomnia, the twelve volumes
of Casanova’s Memoirs (1785). He would have been consoled by the inevitable
ennui of the compulsive seducer and the whispered suggestion of latent
homosexuality and moved to write a doxological conclusion to Either/Or,
starting with the sentence, ‘The root of all evil is boredom’. Something
he never was. ‘You think about your life backwards. But you live it forward’.
He always has something to look forward to in the immediate future.
End of the Evening
All the Don’s women are at home with their husbands. Tchaikovsky
and Beaumarchais have gone off together to ‘The Black Cap’. Eugene Onegin
has forgotten Tatiana and taken up with Zerlina. Tatiana is relieved, divorces
her General and sets up with his son. Regina marries a family
friend, and Natty Pushkin, the major, who stood guard when her lover Endymion
came to visit. He is portly and undemanding. They live comfortably on Pushkin’s
‘I wasn’t meant to be happy’, says Kierkegaard. ‘Nous
aussi’, say Byron and Pushkin (thinking he is French). They are really
speaking on behalf of Beaumarchais’s Don Giovanni, who stands by looking
as though he could do with hell opening. Donna Anna’s rape charge is pending
and the only silver lining is the law, as it’s wont to, has soured the
sweetness in Octavio’s bel canto. But a billet doux has just been passed
to him. Could it be from Elvira (neé Madigan)? It’s good to
end a musical evening on an open note.
Kierkegaard, 42, Tchaikovsky, 40, Pushskin, 38, Mozart
and Byron 36. Ages of death, descending in double steps, averaging 38.4
years (standard deviation 3.75). Numbers stop me with dull thud finality.
Maybe I should apply the gematria to them. Combinations equal a letter
in Hebrew. It would be possible to recreate the Old Testament in numbers.
The bottom line is zero, which is infinity. God, the Mathematician, has
our number, says Plato.
The sum of their years is 192. What gematriac permutations
would say anything of significance? E-l-I, is it? ‘Eli, (a higher power
completes for me) eli lamah, !! azavtani’ (My God, my God, why hast thou
‘I am a worm buried in the dust of death. Deliver me from
the dog that wants to dig me out. Let me sink until I reach soil where
I can grow again’. A bad translation of Psalm 22.
A Posthumous Postscript by Soren Kierkegaard
Mozart’s real Requiem was Don Giovanni . As the final
cry of the Don dies so does he. It’s the death of what he wanted to be.
(The opera dies too into ‘ah! Dove e il perfido’, a conventional tag-on
to tell the audience it’s time to go home, ears ringing with the Don’s
deceived crowing over his demise with unbecoming triumph. Hardly an appropriate
sentiment in the circumstances. Mozart mocked it with a premonition of
the ‘Hymn of Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th symphony. He saw the future and
its abuses more clearly than the politically explicit Ludwig Van).
The Commendatore’s was De Ponte’s theatrical death. It
leaves one unmoved. You know at the end the Stone Statue will melt back
into flesh and take his bow holding the hand of the Mozart’s stand-in (sick
of life he had returned to his happy hunting grounds. As Byron did to Greece
and his blessed, though messy, release in Missolonghi). Lensky, the swooning
poet in Eugene Onegin , is Tchaikovsky’s youth. Eugene kills the thing
he fears (romantic fools) and Tchaikovsky loved bitterly (effeminate youths).
They were both fascinated by what Pushkin called the English vice (he was
sick to death of what he called his African one — jealousy — and walked,
like an Othello, into his wife’s alleged lover’s bullet with remarkable
resignation). It suited Eugene Onegin (life in art) and Tchaikovsky(art
in life) to live on, mourning in music that makes Romeo and Juliet
seem like an amateur production. The reality double crossed by the imagination.
Ours and theirs. Theirs and ours.
The main protagonists in these two operas flirted shamelessly
with the petit mort of sensual love. Only the poets Byron and Pushkin wore
themselves out consummating it. The musicians platonised the petit mort
for us to sate ourselves on. Mozart because he couldn’t grow up,
Tchaikovsky because he couldn’t face his youth and the love that dare not
speak. All in their different ways knew that sensual arts were selling
them short and the lasting passion was le grand mort itself. Each found
it in early middle years before it would be wasted on them.
LENSKY’S SONG OF LOST YOUTH
Act 2, Scene 2, Eugene Onegin
Eugene half-heartedly flirts with Lensky’s muse Olga,
partly from boredom, partly from pique at his rustic friend’s adolescent
mooning. Lenksy challenges him to a duel. Before dawn while waiting for
Onegin Lensky sings his song of lost youth.
O where have you gone to
golden days of my spring ?
My eyes look beyond you
to the darkness within.
The light in my soul dies.
Daybreak can only bring
a sun that is blinding.
I have to close my eyes.
The heart that had hopes cries
out for what might have been.
Whether fate’s arrow flies
past or pierces my skin
matters not. Hear it sing
through the air, or surprise
you with its fatal sting.
The child basks in the sun
Bees humming all their lives.
One day the sun won’t rise.
At least for everyone.
The morning star’s twinkling
bright promise in the skies
is Persephone, sinking
back into the dead eyes
of grim gods set in ice.
The spectre of the tomb
blocks down its shadow on
me. My rhymes grow threadbare.
I am a threadless loom
spinning poems out of air.
When I cease to exist
I will be forgotten.
A young poet won’t be missed
sunk in the sluggish stream
of Lethe.That’s how it is.
So in the parting hour
of a sad life I, who wished
for better, now have kissed,
like a bee might a flower,
in verse, Olga, my flower.
Hoping my seed’s budding
will bloom a desire in
your orchid heart to bring
yourself to my coffin
and lay a thought thereon:
‘He loved me in the spring
of my golden days. Gone
now like him’. I bring spring
back to you. O our spring,
my golden one, is gone.
When they face one another mutual sorrow is expressed
in what is almost a love duet. But it’s too late. The second gives the
signal and Eugene coolly kills Lensky, regretting it immediately (‘Net,
net, net, net’). The curtain comes down.
The stuttering rime riche of the last stanzas of Lensky’s
song should be able to make a Stone Statue blub. My translation is a hybrid
of Tchaikovsky’s song in his own libretto and Pushkin’s poem. If it doesn’t
induce a tear of tristesse I have failed.